Tartan, the name of the colorful plaid wool fabric used by the Scottish to create their legendary mode of dress, has a long and distinguished history. Unfortunately, much of it is muddled, having been passed down mouth to ear for hundreds of years.
There is no way to know when the Scottish people first adopted the tartan, but it is fair to say that it evolved over hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years. Only in the last two hundred or so years have the patterns and forms we know today become set, as Scottish culture has stabilized and become widely known to the world outside the British Isles.
The tartan is, unsurprisingly, made of wool, for two very important reasons – warmth and abundance. Wool is plentiful among the sheep-herding people of the north, and bitter cold, damp weather is the rule rather than the exception. When the Scots first began to color their wool is not clear; the tradition may date back to the Celtic tribes who migrated to Scotland and elsewhere from the continent before 0 A.D.
The Celtic clans and their Scottish descendants often found themselves in battle, with each other and outsiders. It may be that the first tartan patterns were of military origin, using stripes and colors to denote rank and allegiance. Those ancient tribes would have used dyes we now consider primitive, derived from roots, twigs, or berries, and it may have been difficult for them to produce a wide variety of colors and patterns. Because each region would have different materials available for dyes, the clan living in each region would likely adopt similar patterns, although particular patterns did not become associated with particular clans until relatively recently in history. Over time, as the Scots discovered more advanced techniques of coloring and weaving, the patterns of the tartan would have become more colorful and elaborate.
Sometime in the middle of the last millenium, the Scots shifted away from their colorful patterns to clothing more practical for hunting and herding. They began to wear dark browns and greens to better blend in with the native vegetation, and in the process, developed some of the earliest known camouflage uniforms. This trend reversed itself in the early 1700’s when weavers began to discover more modern techniques of weaving and dying, and the Scots once again embraced bright colors and elaborate patterns.
In 1746, in response to Jacobite rebellions in the north, the English banned the wearing of tartan and the bearing of arms among the Highlanders. During this time, only government troops were allowed to wear the plaid, meaning only the famous Black Watch, Royal Highlanders Regiment, who had a distinctive black, green, and blue pattern still worn to this day. The ban was repealed in 1782 and the tartan enjoyed a resurgence as a mark of Scottish heritage.
Later English monarchs developed a fondness for Highlander dress. King George IV and Queen Victoria were among these. Thanks in part to their influence, tartan became a mark of pride for Scots even outside of Scotland, and during this era the modern connection between patterns and particular clans arose. In modern times, you can often catch Prince Charles in a kilt whether for a formal occasion or even just a fishing trip with his sons.
There are now over 2500 recognized clan and regimental patterns along with countless variations and private family tartans. It is now even possible to research one’s family pattern on the Internet and order garb direct from Edinburgh for shipping around the globe.